Part 2: Puerto Madryn
(For Part 1 : Buenos Aires (i), click here)
It’s 828 miles south from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn. You can fly, providing your plans match the airline’s schedule. Alternatively, you can do what many, many Argentinians do…..go by bus.
Long distance coach travel is commonplace in Argentina. Companies provide a network of executive coaches that wend their way north to south and east to west. We booked two semi-cama ejecutivo seats on the 1 p.m. El Condor bus from Retiro bus station, Buenos Aires, as far as Puerto Madryn. Our bus was carrying on to Comodoro Rivadavia, some 1094 miles from start to finish. We were to be on it for a mere nineteen hours.
But, what a coach! Honestly, it was relatively easy to cope with with nineteen hours in a seat that made first class air travel look cramped. It fully reclined without being a nuisance to fellow travellers and a leg extension meant that you almost felt you were in bed. Catering was interesting. The food was on a par with air travel, although there could have been some work done with the ‘stewardess’ and ‘customer service’. He was in a fleece and overalls and tossed a polystyrene tray at us followed swiftly by a bottle of water. Under the cling-film, however, were pinwheels of bread and meat, palmiers and sandwiches cut with a delicacy that would have been appreciated by Lady Bracknell. Unfortunately, if, like me, you don’t get particularly excited by ham and cheese, there’s often not much else from which to choose. Everything, and I mean everything, in Argentina seems to come with cheese attached. Jambon and queso, crudo and queso, queso and queso….menus sometime read like a Monty Python spam script. It’s the same with pizza. It’s pizza, Giacomo, but not as we know it……
Throughout the afternoon we drove through the suburbs of Buenos Aires and then out onto the open road.
Bruce Chatwin writes, The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed. Unlike the deserts of Arabia, it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit, but it does have a place in the record of human experience. Charles Darwin found its negative qualities irresistible.
But one thing is certain. The Patagonian deserts are endless. Looking out through the front window of the bus, the road stretches ahead as far as the eye can see. As far as the horizon. Shimmering mirages of water cover the tarmac and a car, or lorry, passes every half hour or so.
Late in the afternoon we stop in Azul. It’s a town that time has forgotten. It’s been here since 1832. It’s hard to believe that it’s the centre for agronomy and law for the University of Buenos Aires, that its cemetery was designed in the Art Deco style and the town hosted the Bolshoi Ballet back in 1992. But again, it’s the bus station we see. As we step down onto the concrete, heads turn and eyes stare. There is a quietness that is reminiscent of the calm before the storm in a zombie-apocalypse B movie. The stop is only for ten minutes and I head for the banos. The man on the chair outside the caballeros hands toilet roll out by the slice. It’s clear that this is going to be a ‘discomfort stop’. Actually, it’s not as bad as it looks. Ammonia levels are still in the green and floors are dry. Perhaps, I’m just a little too tired to be boundlessly optimistic.
I wait for the others by the side of two very emaciated women of a certain age and a young girl holding a small parrot.
We stop next in Bahia Blanca. It’s late into the night and still in the high 20s. By day, I expect Bahia Blanca is every bit as exciting as when Magellen discovered it back in 1520 and every bit as pleasant as the 320,000 population finds it. The bus station, however, at that time of night, looks a candidate for a twinning bid with Royston Vasey. It’s time to eat, drink and survive the facilities. The trouble is, it’s too hot to eat and we’ve just woken up. We wait while the crew of three drivers refuel themselves and their coach and we head off, ever south.
Our immediate fellow travellers are a middle-aged lady and her elderly mother. They are dark and swarthy, the South American genes lifting the cheekbones and curving the nose. They seem to survive on copious amounts of yerba mate and the occasional sandwich, presumably ham and cheese.
Yerba mate is an Argentinian staple. It’s drunk endlessly and continually by young and old alike. For the uninitiated, the yerba is a chopped mixture of the leaves and twigs from a member of the holly family. It’s placed in a small round calabash gourd until it’s three-quarters full and then water from a thermos (at about 70 degrees) is dribbled onto it. Using a metal straw, or bombilla, the drinker drinks the infusion from the bottom of the gourd. It’s dark, bitter and warm. It should never be stirred and when the liquid has been consumed, it is passed back to the person with the thermos who adds some more warm water. The mate or tea is highly diuretic, although our fellow passengers seemed not to be affected in that department and lasted as long as the rest of us. Everybody seems to have their own gourd, bombilla and thermos. Cafes and stalls willingly fill your thermos for you for no charge. It’s a cultural thing and very much a habit for many. There is much written about whether yerba is detrimental to health in large quantities, but I suppose that goes for any product that is as high in caffeine and a stimulant.
By dawn we are in Patagonia on Ruta 3 and passing cattle ranches that stretch over thousands of acres. The estancia or farm house is inevitably situated in a square of land bordered by two rows of trees. The outer row are small trees, planted to send the ever-blowing wind upwards and the inner row of taller trees carries the wind up and away. Once the trees were established, the farmers would have been able to tackle the issue of getting something to grow in an arid landscape where the wind would destroy and remove the valuable top soil unless curbed.
Like all properties in Patagonia, the houses are built of stone or wood with roofs, and sometimes walls, of painted corrugated iron. Towns remind you of Australian frontier towns – wide avenues and boardwalks, two blinks and they’ve gone.
By breakfast time, we arrive in Puerto Madryn. We’re staying at the Gran Madryn, just off the main drag and on the shores of the Golfo Nuevo. It’s a pleasant hotel with a sea view, if you stretch your neck far enough out of the window. No matter, we are not here for the sun, the sea and the sand…..and there’s plenty of all three. We’re here to trace the roots of the Welsh in Patagonia and sample the pleasures of the Valdes Peninsula.
At this point, I need to digress and take you back in time, back to May 1865. The clipper ship, Mimosa, sets sail from Liverpool carrying 153 passengers and a crew of 18. She had been built in Aberdeen some twenty years previously, well past her prime and had been converted to carry passengers. A large number of the passengers were from north Wales although some had assembled in Mountain Ash and Aberdare prior to the voyage. They landed in Puerto Madryn in July 1865. The Argentine government had been actively encouraging the forming of colonies by European settlers and the idea of a Welsh colony had been mooted by Michael D. Jones, a nationalist non-conformist preacher from Bala in Gwynedd. Patagonia would be Y Wladfa, the Colony, a place safe against the prejudices endured by the non-conformist Welsh speakers at that time. He sought a ‘little Wales beyond Wales’.
Tailors, cobblers, brickmakers, carpenters and miners were daunted when they realised that the dream of a new start had been rather oversold. They landed on the beach slightly east of what is today’s seaside resort of Puerto Madryn and were faced with arid desert and scrubland with not a tree in sight. An absence of fresh water meant that they had to move and eventually they started a long walk across the desert and inland.
On reaching the Chubut Valley, they started to establish a community. Flash floods took away crops and houses and starvation proved to be a real and constant danger. After a year, relations improved with the local Tehuelche indians who led them inland, following the Chubut river and started the long expansion towards the Andes in the west.
By 1884, Lewis Jones had established a railway, Y Brut (The Chronicle) was in publication, and settlements as far away as Esquel and Trevelin at the foot of the Andes in the west, had been established. By 2016, it was recorded that over 50,000 Patagonian Argentinians claim to be of Welsh descent with between 1500 and 5000 people still speaking the language. There are also three bilingual primary schools in the Chubut region.
In Puerto Madryn, the monument to the Mimosa and the early settlers takes pride of place at the middle of the promenade. The Welsh dragon flies alongside the blue, white and golden sun of the Argentine and a series of reliefs commemorate the early days of the colony. It’s a very pleasant town built along the water’s edge and stretching right along the bay. Tourism is obviously the main income for many in the town and all eight of the beaches are flanked by restaurants and cafes meeting the needs of the visitors. The beach is excellent and the South Atlantic, whilst not exactly Mediterranean-warm, does welcome the odd paddler and swimmer. The Spanish here is flecked with Italian, the result of an influx of Italian workers during the nineteenth century as part of the town’s commercial development.
The following day we take an excursion onto the nearby Valdes peninsula. The whole area is a nature reserve and we go via mini-bus along gravelled roads. Our guide is Claudia, a Brazilian who speaks Spanish, Portuguese, English, Italian, a little German and is learning Welsh. Along with her Wlpan classmates, she tours the Welsh primary schools taking traditional songs and dances to the children. Excursions are expensive, but the distances are such that it has to be done, and better in someone else’s car than risking damage to a hire vehicle.
Every car seems to have shrapnel marks in the windscreens and nobody seems to mind as we hurtle along rough roads. We stop to take in the local wildlife, guanaco (a llama-like creature, the meat of which was the staple diet of the local Indians but now is ‘gourmet’ and eaten in the best restaurants in Buenos Aires), the rhea, the European hare, the pichi (the Argentinian armadillo), peregrine, the loica (a long tailed meadow lark), the martineta tinamou and the mara (a large rodent distantly related to the guinea pig).
Eventually, via Punte Norte and Punte Pyramide, we arrive at the coast. It’s the wrong time of year for watching the Southern Right Whale as they have all left, but the Magellan penguins, the sea lions, the fur seals and the elephant seals are there in number. Interestingly, the whales arrive in Puerto Madryn in May because the waters are calm and they need to bring their young to the surface to teach them to breathe. The mother’s milk is sprayed into the water and is so oily that it doesn’t dissipate. The babies take it in from the water and grow. The adult whales don’t eat from May until they leave in December. This is mainly because they feed on krill which is only available at the lower end of the South Atlantic.
The seals also need a calm bay as their offspring lack any instinctive ability to swim and need to be taught by their mothers. Adults start their lessons in the small pools left as the tide recedes. Meanwhile, orcas wait off the coast for those baby seals who haven’t been paying attention and enter the water for the first time rather unprepared.
The whole of the Valdes peninsula is a well-guarded UNESCO reserve and has been divided up into 57 separate farms. The largest accommodates 55,000 Australian merino sheep which are rounded up between October and March by four horseman and four border collies. It’s a strange landscape. The whole of the peninsula, some 1400 square miles, is devoid of natural spring water and the lakes are salted. As a result, the merino sheep and the guanaco have developed the ability to drink brackish water. That along with eating the scrub vegetation gives the meat a particular and natural salted spiced flavouring, much sought after across the region.
In the evening, we have supper at Mr Jones, a small restaurant on a side street in Puerto Madryn. It’s a wooden shack that serves cold beer and monstrous-sized beef and chicken kebabs. One kebab would easily satisfy two people and I’m forced to sta through two on my own.
This whole area of Patagonia was once jungle. However, with the arrival of the Andes mountains, the climate changed and what is left is barely fertile. There is an average of 16cm of rainfall per year and this can happen over one day. Local farmers dig ‘rain lagoons’ to try and capture what little rain occurs but these more or less dry up immediately the sun comes out. The fertility of the remainder of the Chubut valley is testament to the back-breaking hard work and ingenuity of the Indians and early Welsh settlers who irrigated the whole area by hand , cutting ditches and trenches into the Afon Camwy.
It’s time to follow the trail of the Welsh out of Puerto Madryn and into the Chubut Valley.
For Part 3 : Welsh Patagonia Trelew, Dolavon and the Dique Florentino Ameghino, click here